A good deed in the 1960s eventually led the Kilkenny man to New York’s oldest bar
Michael Dorgan, New York
It was the American Dream hitched on an Irish roadside.
In 1964 Harry Kirwin, proprietor of New York City’s famed McSorley’s Old Ale House, was holidaying in his native Kilkenny when his car suffered a flat tyre.
As luck would have it, a 25-year-old farmer and meat delivery driver, Matthew “Matty” Maher came upon the stranded publican and offered him a ride. In return, Kirwin promised the Three Castles man a job should he ever find himself in the Big Apple.
Shortly after, Maher took him up on the offer and began bartending at the small watering hole on East 7th Street which lays claim to the boast of Manhattan’s oldest, continuously operated bar. Working his way up to manager, Maher bought the bar and its premises off Kirwin’s son 43 years ago and ran it up until his death last Saturday. He was 80.
“He took a lot of pride from this bar, and was a very active owner,” says Shane Buggy, Maher’s second cousin and a 12-year McSorley’s bartender.
“He had a story for every occasion and no matter who walked through the door, from Ohio to Tokyo, he’d have a story for them. He would crack you up, a character, one of those rare old school gems and he never, ever lost his accent or his Irish sense of pride or even the culture.
“He loved ‘25,’ and still had it, he’d read your mind, he was a genius and just a lot of fun.”
“It’s still cash only, the cash register is the original owner’s cigar box and the fridge behind the bar is the original ice box from 1854.”
Renowned for its sawdust-sprinkled floors and two drink menu – which are flung much less passed across the bar to patrons – a walk through McSorley’s saloon doors is akin to a trip back to the mid-19th century, when a wave of Irish immigrants began arriving after the Great Famine.
“This bar is almost as true to what you would have walked into in 1854”, says Buggy. “You’re getting two beers at a time – a pale ale and a porter – we share tables, you don’t get a table to yourself, there’s no reservations, still cash only, the cash register is the original owner’s cigar box and the fridge behind the bar is the original ice box from 1854.”
To the left of centre lies a large potbelly stove whose black chimney runs up and along the ceiling toward the bar on the right.
“Some customers prefer mulled ale”, wrote Joseph Mitchell in The New Yorker, on April 13, 1940. “They keep their mugs on the hob until the ale gets as hot as coffee.”
Like its brew, the walls are overflowing with pictures, posters and various memorabilia from sports to American and Irish history.
The newspaper announcing Abraham Lincoln’s death in 1865 hangs in the front room (as does the chair he sat on when he visited in 1860) as well as an original ‘Wanted’ sign for his assassin John Wilkes Booth and an image of Sligo’s Michael Corcoran, a Lincoln confidant and founding member of the Fenian Brotherhood, who led the ‘fighting Irish’ 69th regimen (based down the street) to the Civil War. An original 1866 Fenian bond is also on display.
Babe Ruth’s farewell photo taken off the original negative and signed by the photographer (a former regular) is displayed prominently above the old taps and banquet menus, autographs, theatre programs,
political posters, police shields, horse shoes and a myriad of other historical artefacts don its surroundings.
A cluster of shillelaghs are stacked in the corner and a backroom sign warns “BE GOOD OR BEGONE,” next to a picture of Michael Collins.
“It’s a bar with a museum on its walls,” smiles Buggy.
Patrons have come and gone from this world – and some have even returned again. Buggy pulls out an old whiskey flask from behind the bar belonging to their former caretaker – his ashes inside. The remains of 12 more are back there too.
Dust covered wishbones dangle somewhat disconcertingly from the gas light fixture. After being treated to a final turkey dinner by the original owner’s son Bill McSorley, departing WW1 soldiers hung them for good luck. Returning vets were repatriated with their charms, the rest hang as a symbol of their colleague’s sacrifices.
Having survived Prohibition, and forced to brew their own beer in the basement, McSorley sold the bar to Kirwin’s father-in-law, a retired police officer named Daniel O’Connell in 1936 – a relative of the great Irish Emancipator.
His daughter Dorothy was handed the reins after his death almost four years later but the bars “no ladies” policy left Kirwin in control and a court order forced it to change tack in 1970.
Geoffery ‘Bart’ Bartholomew, McSorley’s longest serving bartender of 48 years describes what happened if a woman snuck in.
“There’s a big bell over there from old Madison Square Garden which the daytime manager John Smith would ring and all the men would stand up and stop. There would be complete silence and the woman would be shamed into leaving.
“It was psychologically brutal then but times change.
“We had a big group of regulars at that time from the neighborhood, especially East Village, a lot of World War II veterans, they were just traditionalists, they thought the place should be there’s and a men’s hideout so to speak.”
In 1986, Maher made McSorley’s greatest concession to progress – he installed a women’s restroom. Although only 5’ 8”, he was of stocky build with mightily strong forearms which helped buff up security during years of various drug epidemics in the city.
In the 80’s and 90s members of the Clancy Brothers would play McSorley’s on its anniversary (the only day it’s permitted) and in later years Maher enjoyed nothing more than listening to his youngest daughter Maeve sing on the special day.
A family man, Maher only ever closed for Thanksgiving and Christmas Day.
Customers were treated to days out to Monmouth Park Racetrack where the “McSorley Stakes” is held in June every year.
Maher was a regular Croke Park attendee for Kilkenny All-Ireland senior hurling finals, including last August’s defeat to Tipperary.
An ardent Cats supporter, he proudly bought a table at the county’s New York fundraising dinner with St Kieran’s College in November. “We were here before you were born” read a McSorley’s ad in the night’s journal programme.
The New York Times’ announcement of his death this week would also have chimed with anyone who knew Matty Maher or McSorley’s on Manhattan’s lower East side.
“An institution within an institution”, it read.
This article first appeared in the Irish Examiner on January 18, 2019.